By Jaimie Julia Winters
A sexuality education program for kindergarteners and first graders geared toward fostering healthy relationships, inclusivity and self esteem, to supplement what’s offered in the school system, will begin in March at Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair on Church Street.
For decades, the Montclair church has been hosting Our Whole Lives (OWL), a lifespan sexuality education program. Although the nation-wide program has curricula for kindergartners through senior citizens, UU has kept its offerings to three levels:1 grades K-1, grades 4-5 and grade 8. The session for eighth graders is offered every year, while K-1 and fourth-fifth alternates every other year, with the K-1 being offered this March.
“Honest, accurate information about sexuality changes lives. It dismantles stereotypes and assumptions, builds self-acceptance and self-esteem, fosters healthy relationships, improves decision making and has the potential to save lives,” according to Our Whole Lives website.
Last year, seeing a need and want by parents for “honest and inclusive conversations on human sexuality,” the church opened the classes up to everyone in the community, said OWL Director Jennifer Bell. Participants and their parents do not need to be a member of the church.
The “Circles of Sexuality” principal contains a center circle values, surrounded by five circles containing “sexual health,” “sexualization,” “sensuality,” “intimacy” and “sexual identity.” These are the areas covered by the Our Whole Lives lifespan sexuality education program.
Despite the Center for Disease and Control and Prevention reporting record lows in teenage pregnancy, the U.S. still has some of the highest rates of teens giving birth.
OWL’s goal is for participants to make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health and behavior, and to set boundaries. With a holistic approach, it provides developmentally appropriate information based on ages about a range of topics, including relationships, gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual health and cultural influences on sexuality.
Although OWL was started by the Unitarian Universalist church and The Church of Christ for use in both secular settings and faith-based communities, UU does not include the religious portion in their classes, said Bell. Our Whole Lives curriculum meet or exceed the National Standards for Sexuality Education Core Curriculum, K-12.
OWL expands on sex ed taught in schools and covers topics and skills that both parents and students want to have available, but schools are less likely to cover.
“Sexuality is part of being human. We create an environment of trust in small group settings to answer questions and transform the fear and confusion about sex,” said Bell.
The curricula was created by Dr. Eva Goldfarb of Montclair State University. In an interview with the Center for Sex Education, Goldfarb described much of sexuality education as inconsistent and therefore confusing.
“There are many people and organizations who identify themselves as sexuality educators including those who focus on religiously-based abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, those who are dedicated to reducing unintended pregnancies and STIs through getting kids to practice safer sex and those who see comprehensive sexuality education through a very different lens — as a process of helping people throughout their lives to learn about themselves and others in a variety of ways that will help them to become sexually healthy, content, able to enter into and maintain healthy sexual and other relationships, experience pleasure, and enjoy their sexuality. I count myself in this last group,” she said.
While all three approaches are considered sexuality education, they differ in their views of adolescents, their ultimate goals, or their criteria for success, she added.
For K-1, topics covered will include anatomy using dolls, taking care of your body and healthy bodies, you get to decide who touches you, healthy relationships and where babies come from. Parents decide on whether egg and sperm conception will be taught only or will touch on intercourse. An information gathering class will be held on March 10 for parents only.
“We create a partnership with the parents,” said Bell. “We communicate about class work and there is homework that fosters parent-student dialogue.”
In the fourth-fifth grade classes, changes during puberty are covered, along with values to help students make healthy decisions in regards to their sexuality. In the program for 8th graders, body image, feelings and attractions, healthy and unhealthy relationships with friends family and boyfriends or girlfriends, reproductive health and consent and peer pressure are covered.
UU member Jill Gerken Wodnick’s children have attended OWL programs at UU. The Montclair mother of three appreciates the age-appropriate lessons provided throughout different years of growth of her children, and also the parental involvement the program fosters.
“Parents are the first teachers of human sexuality for our children. We are key partners in that education,” she said.
Wodnick noted that she appreciates the inclusiveness of the LGBT community into the curriculum, something that is not covered in public education.
“[The program] provides a unique culture of trust. Consent, personal respect, intimacy, healthy relationships are all part of the dynamic language children will experience at different times,” she said about what is touched upon in classes. “It’s actually good for the community [as a whole].”
According to Montclair’s superintendent Kendra Johnson, Montclair begins sexuality curriculum in kindergarten, with K-3 being taught by PE/Health teachers and classroom teachers.
Lessons in grades 4 and 5 are taught by the PE/Health teachers (both certified in health) or PE/Health teacher and nurse (certified in health). A male and female team teaches the fourth and fifth grade lessons.
“Our goal is for the sexuality curriculum to build… beginning in K and ending in grade 12. Our lessons are all from the Advocates for Youth 3 R’s Curriculum (Rights, Respect and Responsibility. Our teachers have the flexibility to make small changes in each lesson as they deem appropriate,” said Johnson.
For parents interested in the OWL program, a parent meeting will be held on March 10, 12:30 p.m., at UUCM, 67 Church St. Childcare will be available. Classes begin for the students on April 10, and run through June 9. Call 973-744-6276 for information.